Distancing IndyCar From NASCAR
Now that we are almost two weeks removed from the giddiness of the Izod title sponsorship announcement, everyone has had time to let everything soak in a little bit. I’ve made it clear that I was not excited at all in all of the rumors leading up to the announcement. But after it was all over, I was feeling as warm and fuzzy about it as everyone. Now that the glow has subsided and real logic has had a chance to set in, it’s a perfect opportunity for my cynicism to return. But it hasn’t.
A week and a half later, I still feel like this is a tremendous opportunity for the Izod IndyCar Series (I don’t even mind typing/saying it). We’ve all talked and read about the obvious – the immediate influx of cash along with the powerful marketing arm of Phillips-Van Huesen Corporation, the parent company of Izod. But one thing that didn’t strike me at first, but now seems just as important is the opportunity to further the distance between the Izod IndyCar Series and NASCAR.
The differences between the two forms of racing are obvious to even the most casual observers. The line gets a little blurred in some minds when comparing the distinctly different series. I have never been to the Brickyard 400, so I cannot compare the two crowds. However, I went to the Charlotte IRL race in the spring of 1999 and then to the fall NASCAR race at the same track the following October. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn I had gone to two races on two different planets. The difference in the makeup of the two crowds was astounding.
The IndyCar crowd was there to watch the race. The NASCAR crowd seemed more interested in the tailgating going on outside the track. The NASCAR fans had chewing tobacco in their mouths, while the IndyCar fans had teeth in theirs. The IndyCar fans seemed to think it was OK to cheer for more than one driver. The IndyCar fans also pulled for drivers instead of a car-number. I don’t recall dodging chicken bones at the IRL race. Anyway…you get the picture.
Even though these races were over ten years ago, those differences still remain. It may be different in other parts of the country, but here in the south – the heart of NASCAR country – when you tell a contemporary that you are a race fan, they start with the jokes. To most people in the south, racing means NASCAR. Some cannot fathom that there is anything else out there. On Friday morning, I went into my office telling a co-worker about my appearance on Blogger Night the night before. I told her of all the comments on Twitter immediately following of people commenting on my southern accent. My co-worker’s response was "I thought all the NASCAR fans were country, anyway". There is a Tony Kanaan car sitting prominently on the front of my desk. Even though she and I have worked together for almost five years and she has given me no reason to believe she is an idiot – I still haven’t been able to convey that what I follow is not NASCAR.
It’s not that all people in the south like NASCAR, necessarily – quite the contrary. Many laugh at it and make jokes about it. But when they watch the local news around here, that’s the only racing they see. When people in the south go to the mall or Home Depot, all they see are Dale, Jr. T-shirts and Jeff Gordon hats, which are usually adorning a not-so-flattering physique. This is what they equate to being an average racing fan. So when I tell friends and acquaintances that I’m going to a race, they look at me in total bewilderment as if I had just confided in them that I had stolen a kid’s lunch money.
With all of the cool, hip, scowling models that were part of the Izod announcement becoming the new symbol of IndyCar racing – it may not be a bad thing. A lot of newer type NASCAR fans appeared around the beginning of this decade. Partially because FOX initiated a whole new style of broadcasting races which made them seem “cool”, and also because of some curiosity generated by the death of Dale Earnhardt. Once the intrigue wore off, some fans lost interest in the sport because (a) they found it boring and contrived, (b) they found the fans boorish and guilty of reverse snobbery and (c) they found themselves being stereotyped by their non-racing friends. They were intrigued by the speed and yes, the danger…but something about the overall atmosphere of a NASCAR race was sometimes a little too much to bear in one sitting.
We don’t really want NASCAR’s fans. We want new fans. This is a great chance for the Izod IndyCar Series to grab this opportunity to further distance itself from its country counterpart. We’ll let the Izod marketing team handle the image of the fan, but there is also a golden opportunity to prove that open-wheel racing is more genuine.
Until we get more chassis and engine manufacturers along with just a little competitive balance, I won’t be ready to claim that our form of racing is superior – but at least we put an honest product on the track (and yes, from a marketing standpoint – it is a product).
Our biggest race of the season has no guaranteed provisionals – only the fastest cars get in. We would prefer to finish our races under the yellow, than to extend the race into some contrived overtime just to get a green-white-checker finish. We don’t restart the field after a caution with the filed bunched side-by-side like the beginning of the race. Our season points battles are exciting and close enough that we allow the points total to speak for themselves; rather than take the top twelve and mix them all into a hat while leaving the rest of the field as nothing but rolling fodder. About the only contrived thing that the IRL does is the “push-to-pass” button that they stole from Champ Car. Its effectiveness on a normally aspirated engine is debatable, but I still think it ranks as gimmicky
I’ve made my share of negative comments about Brian Barnhart, but I think he is a fair man and is better at enforcing rules and penalties than his NASCAR counterparts. My main problem is his insistence on throttling innovation and choices for the teams. He seems to prefer the spec series formula, which I am totally opposed to.
But if this new marketing strategy that Izod brings helps to bring newer and more affluent fans to the sport, maybe Brian Barnhart will join the new spirit and help to open up the rule book, thus setting our series further away from the series that just launched the Car of Tomorrow which has pretty much turned NASCAR into a spec series as well. With this newer, fresher face for IndyCar, perhaps the new fans will like what they see and stick around beyond the point where Danica Patrick goes out of the race.